Today's Reading

She realized, as they chatted, that she liked Nancy. It was not that she felt merely a natural sympathy for the girl, what with her having lost her parents and finding herself looking after a sick aunt miles from anywhere; Nancy Robertshaw was personable and outgoing, with an easy, friendly manner. Maria found herself wishing she could buy Nancy a new dress to replace the one she was wearing, which was patched and had been taken in. Even the collar of her scarlet cardigan was frayed. 'It's so good to have someone in the village I can talk to!' Nancy said at one point, taking a great bite from a slab of cake and munching. 'I mean to say, everyone is ever so friendly here, but there seems to be no one younger than Unc. Other than Roy, that is...'

She coloured instantly, and Maria received the impression that the girl regretted the pronouncement.

She said, 'Roy?'

'Oh...' Nancy stared into the flames. 'Just a young fellow who has a caravan in the Wellbournes' meadow. Roy Vickers. "One of war's casualties", as Unc says.'

Maria smiled to herself and congratulated Nancy on the quality of the cake.

'When Unc told me that your husband was a writer, I went into Bury and withdrew one of his books from the library. I must say, I was impressed.' Nancy beamed at Maria. 'I'm so glad you've moved into the village.'

Maria smiled and murmured something to the effect that she hoped Nancy would not be disappointed.

At that moment, the French windows banged open as if blown by a gale, and the squat, tweed-clad figure of Professor Robertshaw strode into the room. He pulled off his deerstalker, brrr'd his lips like a hypothermic horse and barged between the settees to the fire, where he proceeded to toast first his outstretched hands and then his buttocks.

He was even smaller than Maria had assumed at first sight, and oddly broad across the shoulders as if in compensation.

His face was grey and slab-like—not at all unlike his beloved standing stone—with a clipped military moustache and bushy eyebrows beneath a bald dome.

Nancy leapt to her feet and said somewhat nervously, 'This is Maria —Maria Dupré—our new neighbour at Yew Tree Cottage,' while twisting her fingers together as if worrying how her uncle might react to Maria's presence.

'You do have a tendency to state the obvious, Nance.' He turned to Maria and smiled. 'Your fame precedes you. I know your employer, Charles Elder. He told me you were moving in here. Nance,' he went on, 'go see how Xandra is, there's a good girl. Quick sharp.'

Nancy nodded, smiled ruefully at Maria and hurried from the room.

'Hope the gal didn't come on too strong,' the professor said. 'She does latch on to people somewhat. If she gets too much, just put her in her place as you would a young pup, you hear?'

Bridling, Maria said, 'I was very much enjoying our conversation.'

The professor sniffed, stepped over the dozing dog and collapsed into one of the settees as if pole-axed, his impact with the old cushions raising a vortex of ancient dust that swirled in the firelight. He stared across at a table bearing a decanter and glasses, then muttered something to himself. 'Don't suppose you'd oblige an old man and pour me a snifter, would you?'

Maria leaned over, selected the glass that seemed least dusty and poured the professor a generous measure.

He nodded his thanks and took a mouthful, closing his eyes and lying back on the settee. 'Dreadful state of affairs,' he said then, apropos of nothing.

At first, Maria assumed he was alluding to the fishy goings-on he'd mentioned in the note, but then he said, 'Xandra's dying. That's my wife. Nance doesn't know, so not a word to her, understand?'

Maria murmured, 'I'm sorry.'

'She had TB years ago, but the medication she was treated with... Well, the ruddy stuff played havoc with her kidneys.' He shook his head. 'Not that Xandra helps herself. Sometimes wonder if she doesn't have a death wish. My brother, Spencer— he has a private practice in town—gives her a few months.'

'I'm so sorry.'

'Well,' he said, opening his eyes and regarding her, 'nothing we can do about it, is there? You can't fight fate, what? Get the missive?'

The sudden change of conversational tack non-plussed her. 'Oh, you mean your note?'

'I'd like to see your hubby—Langham. Is he around?'

'He's up in London today, on business.' She hesitated. 'If you'd like to tell me, I could pass on the gist—'

He interrupted. 'I'd like to see Langham, if it's all the same.
Is he free tomorrow?'

'I don't see why not.'

'Then send him round. Eleven will suit me. Does he like Scotch?'

This excerpt ends on page 12 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book Silent Parade by Keigo Higashino.

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